Embarrassing disclaimer: I’m an avid Lifetime Movie Network fan. I’ve been watching their movies since about ninth grade and no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to give them up. I just love the corny drama and the terrible acting. For a while, I was wholeheartedly obsessed, probably to an unhealthy extent. However, after watching for so long, I’ve picked up on something about these movies that I’m growing quite sick of. And that’s the incredible misrepresentation of mental illness.
As awareness for mental illness slowly increases, a dialog about mental health grows louder by the day. More celebrities and prominent figures continue to come forward, speaking candidly about their own experiences with mental illness. The newfound freedom in discussing mental health creates opportunities for a deeper understanding of the topic, but it also makes space for deeper misunderstandings of mental illness.
The media’s representation of individuals suffering from mental illness varies from accurate and poignant — take Hulu’s You’re the Worst, for example — to totally inaccurate and borderline bizarre. Sadly, such is the case with many Lifetime movies. In fact, the Lifetime network may be one of the worst offenders, particularly since the majority of its formulaic original movies tend to paint the antagonist as mentally ill, but make little to no attempt to delve into how the reality of that mental illness should impact our reception of the character. So what, exactly, does Lifetime do wrong?
Avoiding a Clear Diagnosis
Something that screenwriters tend to shy away from — and not just in Lifetime movies — is a transparent diagnosis of a mentally ill character. Instead, they opt to exaggerate the characteristics of any mental illness that suits their storyline and ignore others, regardless of how these symptoms would actually play out in real life. Characters are frequently labeled with vague terms like “crazy” and “psycho,” without actually stating what disorder they have, and whether or not they’ve been denied treatment for it.
When writers avoid a diagnosis, they have this ability to pick and choose traits of mental illness without any clear explanation of where they came from. For instance, the classic Lifetime flick may portray a woman with a borderline personality disorder who is hell-bent on destroying her ex’s new flame. However, said film will rarely make reference to the fact that borderline-personality disorder doesn’t randomly arise after a bad breakup, but stems instead from dysfunction very early on in life. This kind of plot line, in fact, has little to do with mental health at all, and more to do with the sexist assumption that women cannot control themselves without a man in their life.
Discounting Real-Life Diversity
Another stumbling block for Lifetime films that I’ve noticed is how predominantly white the cast is. If anything, a person of color might play the therapist or doctor, but not the protagonist we’re all supposed to root for. This does communities of color a great disservice.
Particularly in the black community, a stigma still swirls around those considered mentally ill. As a result, shame and embarrassment prevent people from seeking help. A study conducted by the CDC found that although a higher percentage of black women reported experiencing major depression (4 percent as opposed to about 3 percent for both whites and males), they are still the group that is less likely to seek help or have access to help. So, given that black women appear to face some of highest rates of mental illness, it follows that film and television should depict this reality, right?
What’s more, when it comes to intersectionality, Lifetime movies miss the mark when it comes to depictions of disability as well. Heroes and heroines with a disability such as autism spectrum disorder deserve a fair representation of their struggles and triumphs — not a sloppy rendering of someone who succumbs to some characteristics of autism, but not others. Autism is also incredibly stereotyped in terms of race, gender, and age.
Unfortunately, we see problems across the board with the depiction of autism in film. One of the most famous onscreen portrayals of autism, Rain Man, has been criticized for only showing some of the “ticks” associated with autism, but not delving deeply enough into the full range of symptoms that those with autism can present. Most movie depictions of autism see a similar criticism — directors appear to have a particularly difficult time narrowing down an accurate representation of autism in film.
Making Mental Illness the Fall Guy
Another trap that screenwriters fall into is allowing the mental illness itself to serve as the scapegoat, or almost personifying a disorder such as depression or anxiety. Instead of developing rich characters with intricately woven backstories, writers slap some type of generic mental illness label on the antagonist and blame any perceived “bad behavior” on that underlying issue. This method of storytelling isn’t just lazy, it also inaccurately depicts mental illness, which is much more complicated than a single instance of socially unacceptable behavior.
For example, in the 2016 Lifetime movie, You May Now Kill The Bride, the main villainess, Audrey, is revealed about halfway through the film to be taking medication for some sort of mental illness. Other characters on the show who know her refer to her as “sick,” but her actual diagnosis is never named.
Additionally, her actions throughout the film do not all line up with one particular mental illness; yet, as soon as her pill bottles are revealed, her mental illness becomes the answer, or scapegoat, for pretty much everything she does throughout the rest of the film. We’re left with very little understanding of what’s actually going on with Audrey, even though it’s already been revealed to us that whatever is “wrong” with her is the cause of pretty much all of the major action in the plot.
Perpetuating Myths with New Flicks
Perhaps you’re thinking, “No network really makes movies like these anymore,” about this, you’re wrong. This fall, Lifetime debuted a new movie that runs with the trope of the lonely or scorned person struggling with some form of disconnect from reality.
Enter Psycho Wedding Crasher. This new Lifetime flick weaves the tale of a woman apparently driven to madness by long-term loneliness and an abusive aunt. Rather than seek treatment or turn to someone she trusts for help, the woman fixates on an engaged man and plots to kill his bride so that she can have him all to herself. Seems logical.
Statistically, people who suffer from mental illness do not actually act on violent behaviors nearly as much as neurotypical people do, and they themselves are actually more likely to be assaulted. These movies usually feature some storyline where a character carries out an obsessive or vengeful attack on a rival, former lover, etc. While this does happen sometimes in real life, these movies paint these “heartless and evil” characters as the antagonists we root against.
The ending is almost always a happy picture for the victim of the pursuit. But the well-being and whereabouts of the unfortunate antagonist, who is presumably mentally unwell (even if inaccurately portrayed as such) and in need of help, aren’t usually discussed or paid any mind. And oftentimes, they are jailed or killed during the final showdown. This makes a mockery out of people who suffer from real conditions like PTSD, OCD, bipolar, schizophrenia, or BPD, and suggests that we should not care what happens to them.
With so many misrepresentations of mental illness flooding our TVs, it’s no wonder the general public continues to fear and lack understanding of mentally ill individuals. However, as more and more people talk about their struggles with mental illness, the tides slowly shift. With better education and continued dialog, irresponsible storytelling regarding mental illness will hopefully soon be a thing of the past.